Friday, January 15, 2010

Jan 15th 2010 Phenology update from California

Torrey Pines Ecological Reserve, La Jolla, California in January

For the past month I have had the pleasure of avoiding the full intensity of Montana's winter by staying close to the ocean down here in La Jolla Cove, just north of downtown San Diego. While San Diego is famous for its beaches, mild dry weather year around, and the Chargers football team, it is actually quite an amazing place for naturalists too. Its a real center of plant diversity with over 2,000 species, and a wide range of habitats from beaches, chaparral, grassland, and riparian woodlands, up to various kinds of forests up in the foothills and mountains--all within a short drive from downtown.

Southern California, and the rest of the southern US are good places to look for the
beginning of our phenology season since it usually happens here first. You would think with the warm weather this winter we would be recording records of early wildflowers. But as with other dry ecosystems this is one where rainstorms and moisture availability are often just as important as temperature in determining when plants first start growing again.

To make a quick assessment of where things are here I found a nice trail along some coastal bluffs at Torrey Pines Ecological Reserve (where many rare species and nice examples of chaparral or sage scrub vegetation can be found), then I went out to the Blue Sky Ecological reserve several miles inland near Poway, where you can see some nice examples of chaparral & riparian woodlands much of which is coming back vigorously from the Witch Fire which raged through the area in 2006.

At Torrey Pines, on the coast there are few flowers in bloom right now. Since this is a Mediterranean Climate, with winter rains and hot dry summers, now is the time when there is usually the most vegetative growth. By looking carefully you can find a few individual flowers and occasionally a whole bush or herb in bloom, but the dry conditions make them pretty sparse.
Bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) and Mission mazanita (Xylococcus bicolor) have full flowers now. You can also see a few California buckwheats in flower (Eriogonum californica), and a few rue bushes (Cneoridium dumosum) and California sagebrushes (Artemisia californica) still in flower. Just a few lemonaid berries (Rhus integrifolia) have flowers, most are still in bud stage. White flowered currant (Ribes indecorum) is in flower. These plants are considered "winter flowers", and will flower off and on over the wet winter period. Lots of new leaves out, but most plants have flower buds that are swelling, and probably will give a good display once some good soaking rains arrive (4-6" may come on Monday!). Peak flower display of annual and perennial flowers (local trail describes as "orgasmafantastic") should occur in March, and should be done by May.

Back about 12 miles from the coast in the interior foothills near Poway you can see a slightly different pattern. Here it is warmer during the day (up to 80's lately) but cooler at night (40's). So some plants are little further along or more influenced by the drought here. I could find no sagebrushes in flower, but many in fruiting stage. Riparian woodlands have a lush carpet of bright green seedlings of mostly annual herbs (such as chickweed). Swamp evening primrose, a really exotic looking shrub with giant stems (7' or more tall) and long narrow willow-like leaves is sending out new flowers this week (Oenothera alata). There are also a few scattered sunflowers (such as Haploppapus spp.).

Out in the open the chaparral looks pretty
brown and dormant. But if you look carefully close to the ground you can see the tiny new leaves of California poppy and many other herbs which will give rise to spectacular blooms in late February or early March. Wild cucumber is just starting to send out new flowers, and laurel sumac (Rhus laurina) is sending out new leaves. California buckwheat is in bloom (with many brown old flowers as well). Deerbrush, a yellow legume (Lotus scoparius) is also sending out new flowers (in Torrey Pines I could only find new leaves emerging). Often in the winter the first flowers occur before leaves (such as holly in the East, and catkin-bearing plants like alders, willows, and hazels). Here lots of leaves are coming out, but a sunflower family perennial is sending out bright bluish-white flowers on what appears to be a dead brown stem (Stephanomeria diegensis).

Back in town, where everything is watered lots more flowers can be found, mostly subtropical ones native to South Africa, the Canary Island, the Mediterranean or some tropical countries. Jade plant is a large shrub here, and several are in full flower as are many pansies, geraniums, morning glories, nasturtium, orange trumpet and bougainvillea vines, and India hawthorne (Rhaphiolepis indica). Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) a Mediterranean native has mostly orange fruits but a few are now ripening to a deep red. Today a woodsorrel (Oxalis rubra, aka O. articulata) came into bloom for the first time this month, a beautiful rose colored flower with lush green leaves. This one is like these other plants a common garden plant outdoors in the summer or as an indoor plant in northern climates. But here it grows outside, and in fact has become a weed in coastal California as well as many southern states. It is native to Brazil.

While most of the country is deep in winter and a dormant season for plants, spring should start showing its sign in southern areas as I have seen here in California. Please share observations on first signs of spring in your area. The Budburst 2010 season is off to a good start!

Paul Alaback

See also the Project Budburst facebook page

1. Overview of Torrey Pines Ecological Reserve, looking south from Yucca Pt. trail.
2. Lemonaide berry (Rhus integrifolia) first flowers
Mission mazanita (Xylococcus bicolor) one of the many flowers unique to this area in full flower
4. Overview of the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve and the trail start in Poway, CA.
5. Coastal live oak and sycamore woodland along creek in Blue Sky reserve, note the lush growth of annual cotyledons and seedlings of grasses and chickweed.
6. California buckwheat (E. californica). Lots of new and old dried flowers
7. California wreath (Stephanomeria diegensis)

Other resources for Southern California Phenology and wildflowers

Santa Monica Mountains
Plants of San Diego County
San Diego Natural History Museum Field Guide

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